Struggling with a Domineering Colleague? Here’s What You Can Do.

Read on for tips to help you rein in those domineering personalities.

March 27, 2023

Domineering Colleague

Illustration by: iStock/RichVintage

Most of us try to avoid anyone who’s domineering and aggressive. But what if that person is your colleague — or even worse, your boss? Putting up with controlling behavior only builds resentment and creates a negative work environment, plus it’s a green light for the offender. Yet it can be tricky to confront someone.

Enabling Domineering Behavior

To figure out how to handle dominant players, let’s first look at the dynamics involved. Deborah H. Gruenfeld is The Joseph McDonald Professor and Professor of Organizational behavior, who also teaches in several Executive Education programs. She and graduate student Emily Reit conducted a series of experiments to determine the factors that influence a person’s willingness to defer to controlling leaders, even when they neither like nor respect them.

People have more power than they think they do in these situations.
Deborah Gruenfeld

Gruenfeld and Reit found that group dynamics play a significant role in enabling domineering behavior: Experiment participants consistently believed that others had more respect for highly dominant people than they did; and participants also indicated a greater willingness to defer to dominant people once they were told others respected those people more.

How Domineering Leaders Maintain Control

The mistaken belief that “everyone else” respects the domineering leader — which makes it more likely everyone will defer to them — allows them to maintain control. This is true even when people individually disapprove of their intimidating tactics. “We live in a world where there’s an expectation that dominance should be deferred to,” Gruenfeld explains.

Tackling Domineering Behavior

Here are three key takeaways about domineering behaviors — and three best practices an organization and its leaders can use to address them:

  • Just as everyone plays a part in creating group dynamics, everyone can play a part in solving the problem. “People have more power than they think they do in these situations,” Gruenfeld says.
  • Confer with one or two colleagues — discreetly and professionally — to confirm your read on the situation. It’s important to dispel the myth that “everyone else” respects the offender.
  • Fortunately, it’s not necessary to stage a dramatic showdown in the company conference room. Even subtle ways of pushing back and letting someone know they’ve crossed a line are effective.
  • If someone’s being domineering in a meeting, a disapproving look, long stare, or heavy pause will let them know they’re being inappropriate. It also signals to others that the behavior isn’t acceptable, and validates their disapproval.
  • Foster a culture where domineering traits aren’t tolerated. “To make change, people in organizations must be willing to show that the norm doesn’t support certain behaviors,” Gruenfeld states.
  • As a leader, model appropriate behavior yourself, and be willing to address any domineering tendencies shown by others in your organization. Show what it means to lead without dominance, and others will follow.

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